John was apparently a slang term in America long ago for a steady boyfriend. Now it is used of the client of a prostitute or for a sugar daddy (apparently – the latter meaning is one I’ve never heard even though I watch a lot of American films.) Anyway, I would have thought this was quite an easy term to explain. John used to be the most common name in English. People signing into a hotel room would sign as Mr and Mrs John Smith. There are John Does and Dear John Letters and Johnny-Come-Lately. It is just a natural word to use of a regular guy, a person you don’t know much about.
Daniel Cassidy, in his moronic waste of paper, How The Irish Invented Slang, came up with an Irish language explanation for this. I try to keep these posts fairly short because I know that people don’t bother reading long articles. But for those who are interested in Cassidy’s work, in the Irish language or in pseudoscience in general, I think it would be instructive to go into more detail with this one, just to show clearly how Cassidy operated. Even if only one or two people enjoy it and learn from it, it will be worth doing.
Here is Cassidy’s claim:
“Teann (pron. t’ann, ch’ann, j’ann, joun), n., a champion; a firm man; fig. a well-to-do-man; a support; a resource; adj., wealthy, well-to-do, strong, well-established, steadfast. Cara teann, a steadfast, constant friend; feirmeoir teann, a well-to-do farmer. Teannaim sparán, I fill a purse well. Teanntóir, n., a backer, a helper, a support. (Dineen, 1191.)”
Dinneen’s (Cassidy consistently misspelled this name) dictionary is a strange and eccentric book. Irish specialists and people with a very high level of the language love it because of this quirkiness and richness but it certainly isn’t a book you would use with beginners. For one thing, its judgements about meaning are sometimes vague, it mixes words from different eras in the history of the language and the spelling is antiquated, as the whole system of orthography was reformed around 1960. Most people who work with the language tend to use Ó Dónaill’s Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, so let’s look at the definition of teann there.
As a noun, it is defined as: 1. (a) Strength, force; (b) stress, strain; 2. (a) support, backing resource (b) assurance, confidence, boldness. 3 Power, authority 4 (In prepositional phrases) (a) ar theann a dhíchill, he is doing his very best (b) i dteann a réime, at the height of his career, (c) le teann oibre, by dint of hard work.
As an adjective, it is: 1 Tight, taut; 2. (a) Firm, strong, (b) steadfast, constant, 3. Well-established, bold, assured, (b) well-to-do, 4 Forceful, emphatic, confident, assured. 5 Hard, severe.
There is nothing here about champions, firm men or well-to-do men. Let’s look at Dinneen’s version.
As an adjective, it is “Teann, -a, -einne, a., tight, firm, stiff, taut, rigid, plump or well-filled (as a bag, etc.), well-set, stout, powerful, hardy, forward, well-contested, well-to-do, downright, decisive, strict; teann as, confident in; teann ar, severe on; teann le, filled or packed with; feirmeoir teann, a well-to-do farmer; fear teann, a stern man, al. a burly man; sursaing theann, a tight-pulled or well-filled belt; chomh teann le lamhnán, as firm (distent) as a bladder; comh teann géar is do b’fhéidir leis, as quickly as he could; láir sheang nó cairiún teann, a slender mare or a firm-set nag (are the best of the kind); teann le bainne, filled with milk (as an udder); is teann mar sin é, that is very forward of you (S.N.); ach mur’ teann ar charaid chan teann ar námhaid, if you cannot rely on a friend you cannot rely on an enemy; aimh-theann, not austere (Contr.)”
As a noun, Dinneen says this: “Teann, g. teinn, tinn, pl. –ta, m., strain, distress, support, strength, resource, effort, violence, supremacy (over, ar); a firm man,a champion; teann na nGall, foreign oppression; teann i dteann, might for might; teann re teann id.; le teann deifre, feirge, 7c., through sheer hase, anger, etc.; ar theann a dhíchill, doing his livel best, ar theann a anama, id.; re teann truaighe dhó, through sheer pity for him; gabhaim neart agus teann i, I obtain strength and support in, assume dominion in; níor ghabhadar teann ná treise i, the failed to conquer; do-ghním teann as, I take pride in, make much of; ó nach tarrthaidh an buille teann air, since the blow did not take effect on him; tá teann ar a chúlaibh aige, he has strong resources.”
The only part of this which corresponds with the meaning which Cassidy is giving to teann is Dinneen’s ‘a firm man, a champion’. I suspect that this is very old and a poetic expression, not the kind of thing you would find in normal conversation and I have certainly never heard it used in this way. As others have pointed out, Cassidy took complex terms and cherry-picked the obscure meanings which suited him without taking into account the way these words are really used in the language.
I should also point out that Cassidy never got the hang of Irish pronunciation. He believed that words like teann, teas and tine can be pronounced as jan, jass and jinna, which they can’t. The slender t in Irish is always pronounced as a t, a ty or a ch, depending on dialect, but never like the j of John.